Practical feline behaviour understanding cat behaviour and improving welfare

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72 Chapter 5

sensitized to it. This is because a cat’s initial experience of the noise of the vacuum
cleaner is something that is sudden, unexpected and loud.
Habituation can take place at any time throughout life, but it occurs more readily
during the sensitive period.

The influence of the mother and littermates during the sensitive period

The presence of the mother and siblings can aid socialization and habituation by
providing the kitten with a ‘safe base’ from which to explore and learn about new
encounters and experiences. Kittens separated from their mother and littermates will
be more cautious and less willing to explore and learn (McCune et al., 1995).
Kittens learn by observation of others but most especially from watching their
mother. Chesler (1969) found that kittens who watched their mother perform the task
of pressing a lever to get food developed the skill, not only faster than others left to
work it out for themselves, but also faster than kittens who had observed an unfamil-
iar female cat perform the same task.
Social learning by observation of the mother’s reaction can also teach the kitten
who or what is potentially threatening (Gray, 1987). If the mother is calm and well
socialized with people, her presence can facilitate a good human/kitten relationship
(Karsh and Turner, 1988). But if a mother cat demonstrates fearful and defensive
reactions towards people while the kittens are most sensitive to learning, they are
more likely to become fearful of people themselves.

Kitten play

Play is also an important part of physical and behavioural development. Kittens
engage in three types of play: social play, locomotor play and object play, which are
defined mainly by the play target but also by the behaviour patterns involved.

Social play

Play with other kittens begins at around 3 weeks of age and starts to decline at
around 12–16 weeks (Table 5.2; Fig. 5.4) (West, 1974; Caro, 1981). Social play is
generally between littermates but can also be directed towards the mother cat, espe-
cially by single kittens without siblings. This can, however, sometimes result in
increased maternal aggression towards the kitten and reduced maternal care, possibly
owing to the mother being reluctant to engage in the more vigorous elements of social
play with her kitten (Mendl, 1988).
Social play may be loosely described as ‘play fighting’ because it does seem to
contain attenuated and moderated forms of agonistic social behaviour, and as
kittens get older social play might occasionally escalate into actual fighting
(Voith, 1980, cited in Bateson, 2000). Visual signals such as a half-open mouth
that often accompanies social play in kittens may be indicators to the other cat or
kitten that the intention of the behaviour is play and not aggression (Bradshaw
et al., 2012).

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